When Abortion Is “Gendercide”
As we face health-care reform, we face new debates about abortion. And in Oklahoma a court battle rages over the strictest abortion laws in the nation. The opposed Oklahoma law, H.B. 1595, changes definitions of abortion terms, seeks to publicize women’s reasons for abortion, and aims to ban abortions sought, “solely on account of the sex of the unborn child.”
In America, the politics of abortion can cloud the reality of what can happen when sex-selection is widely practiced. However, after decades of promotion in India, the evidence is clear. In most countries, there are 105 females to 100 males. In India, the gender ratio is 93 females for 100 males. It may not seem a huge imbalance, but when you add up the numbers over the last 20 years, India is missing 10 million girls. In my opinion, this is gendercide.
The gender imbalance created by years of infanticide and female feticide has led to increased violence against women. Without enough women, girls from poor areas are being sold as wives to higher caste men. Often these girls service more than one male and are kept essentially as sex slaves.
Sex-selective abortion in India has been illegal since 1997; however, deeply rooted cultural norms devalue girls. In some families girls are viewed as being too expensive to raise because of dowries, piercing rituals, and annual gifts to her in-laws. Some believe the life of a girl is so miserable, that it’s worth risking going to jail to avoid having one.
The problem can’t be blamed on ignorance or poverty, as the highest prevalence of gender-based abortion occurs in the educated and wealthy areas. Wealthy families don’t want their daughters to marry and inherit assets that could end up in her spouse’s line. Though dowries are banned, it’s still a widely practiced tradition.
Women face insurmountable pressure to bear sons. They are often abused and abandoned if they don’t. Women are coerced and forced to abort baby girls. Discrimination against girls is extreme — to be clear, if abortion is not an option, there have been cases in which girls were killed shortly after birth. Film makers Gino Caputi and Nyna Pais-Caputi hope to capture the world’s attention by creating a new film, Petals in the Dust, to document the crisis. In the film’s trailer, one woman speaks of her heartbreaking ordeal.
When I gave birth to another daughter, my husband said, “Give me the child. I will take her and leave her somewhere.” I said, “No. How can we abandon her, just because she is a girl? We can’t abandon her.” I cried and pleaded with him. “I can’t abandon her. I can’t abandon her.” My husband and his family wanted me to give the baby girl poison and kill her. I went crazy with grief. I said, “No, I will not let that happen to my baby daughter.” In spite of that, they took her to my friend’s house, without my knowledge, and fed her rice husks–[a practice which slits the baby’s throat.] I asked my husband, “Where is my baby?” He said, “She is dead.”
Some girls are also neglected, malnourished, and denied immunization which often leads to death. According to Harvard Associate Professor Robert Jensen, being born a girl is the number one cause of death. “It’s possibly the greatest human rights crisis in history,” Jensen said, “and nobody knows about it.” There is one village, labeled “the village where they kill their daughters” which has no girls under the age of 10.
Well, we do know about it. In a phone interview last week, anti-feticide activist, Dr. Sabu George noted articles about infanticide and feticide in The New York Times in 2001 and The Christian Science Monitor in 2004. (Articles in The Monitor actually date back to 1988 and there are many others in the above U.S. publications and others that we did not discuss during the interview.) In 2006, when remains of 50 fetuses were found in a well behind a hospital, the issue of feticide and discrimination against the girl child in India hit the news again.
Where is the public outcry? Dr. George posits that “print media is dead.” It no longer has the power to incite action and create change. This is history repeating itself–gender discrimination and sex selection lead to unhealthy gender ratio imbalance in China. How far will it have to go in India before it is recognized as gendercide?
The good news: In India, the government has cash incentives to raise daughters, safe haven programs for abandoned baby girls, and campaigns to promote the value of girls.
The bad news: It’s not enough. The gender gap continues to widen.
The laws are difficult to enforce. Dr. George said, “We need to expose the greed of the professional medical community. We need to have strong sentencing for the medical professionals. It’s a highly organized medical crime making more than $200 million a year.”
Why isn’t anything being done to help the girls of India internationally? “In the U.S., there is no restriction on sex-selection,” George said. “World-wide, it’s a billion dollar industry and someday the dominant white community will have problems.”
To be sure, changing the deeply ingrained, negative perception of Indian girls is a multi-level challenge. In order to effect change, we need to be able to separate the politics of choice with the crisis at hand. According to George, “The whole world should come together to put pressure on India. It is a global responsibility.”
To stop discrimination, girls need to be empowered. They need equal access to education, good healthcare, and economic opportunity. In addition, India needs reforms that will afford parents security in old age to help alleviate “son preference.”
The United Nations Human Rights Council, and the United States should make a case for the girls of India. This is a global crisis that we can do something about. Supporting the International Violence Against Women Act would just be a start.
Together we can send a message about the value of all girls, and speak immediately for those in India. If they know that the world cares for their plight and can help them live in equality, maybe they’ll give girls a second chance.